Taxis aren't so cosy any more
Wednesday, January 17, 2001 -
About 2,000 people have applied for new taxi plates, with about half of them already operating on the streets of Dublin. Many of them have previously rented hours from taxi-drivers under the system known as 'cosying'. So, is the system working, asks Rosita Boland ?
Taxis, taxis, taxis. It's one story with as many legs as a centipede. The leg that's running at the moment is the issue of those new taxi plates, and those who have applied for them since deregulation came in at the end of last year. To date, some 2,000 people in Dublin have applied for the new licences, at a cost of £5,000 a licence. Of those applications, there are approximately 450 new taxi plates now on the streets of Dublin. There is no standard regulation for the type of vehicle which operates as taxi; as long as it has four doors, it qualifies.
Vincent Kearns, spokesperson of the National Taxi Drivers' Union (NTDU), estimates that about half of that number have been taken up by drivers who had been previously working as "cosies". These are the drivers who do not have their own plates, and who rent cars from plate-owners for a set number of hours a week. The word "cosy" implies a snug arrangement; of people squashing up to share a small space. Given the alacrity with which former cosies are taking up the new licences, the days of the snug arrangement - which always primarily benefited the actual licence holder - are numbered.
The other 200-plus drivers who have applied for plates are new to the business. Christopher McNamara is one of these, and he is now on the road with his Nissan Micra.
"I was working as a motorbike courier before," he explains. "But I'm 43, and getting a bit old for that game. I'd have a fair few friends who would have applied for plates who'd have been couriers too. I applied for a plate because I thought it'd be a bit of business. It's an opportunity for myself. I always wanted to do it, but the price of the plates stopped me before. They were way too expensive."
The taxi plate numbers which were issued prior to the recent ruling had a certain cut-off figure. New plates on the road are therefore easily identifiable by other drivers. Given the strong feelings which were running among drivers, unions, politicians and the public before Christmas, what is it like to be the lad with the contentious new plate?
"I've had no problems," McNamara reports. "But I suppose I'm still new to the game. More taxis were needed, but there were other ways it could have been done."
At present, there is an ongoing hearing in the High Court about deregulation, which is being taken by the NTDU. John Weafer, a principal officer at the Department for the Environment and Local Government, was reported last week as saying that the taxi industry had for years opposed efforts to improve the service to the public. He went on to say that it was only in the last three years that the taxi representative groups had accepted that there was a need for more licences, and, even then, it had been "achieved grudgingly".
This was later countered by Myles O'Reilly, a law consultant who was giving evidence on behalf of the NTDU. O'Reilly stated that he was not saying that Bobby Molloy had no right to deregulate, but that there didn't seem to be "any logical basis for it". He made the comment that deregulation in other countries had not been "the panacea for the problem". The hearing is its final stages.
Both sides will of course slog it out, but there's little doubt that the general public do feel there is a logical basis for deregulation. Who among us has not spent hours waiting for a taxi, whether in the late-night misery of a rank, or at our homes or offices? Eamonn Tierney was driving for City Cabs for 18 months prior to applying for his own licence. "It's an opportunity for me to work for myself. But will there be money in it for me? That's the $64,000 question about deregulation. Initially, there should be money in it, but I'd be very concerned about the long-term effects of deregulation."
At the moment, Tierney's application is nearing completion. He is currently working 10 to 12 hours for four to five nights a week. "I used to work days. I gave it up, because with the traffic in this city, I found it impossible to make a living. You're just sitting there burning petrol. With my own plate, I'm going to try a few different things. I'll try working days again - I'd much prefer to be doing that. But I don't believe that flooding the city with taxis during the day will solve anything. It may be simplistic to say this, but the traffic really is appalling. Drivers prefer to work at night for that reason.
"Bobby Molloy has commented about the business community in Dublin being affected by the lack of taxis, and about it reflecting badly on visiting business people. It is. There is a problem that's hitting the business community and nobody in government is willing to grasp the nettle on the traffic issue. I think it's good for the PDs, though. The whole issue is so contentious that it keeps their political profile high."
Like McNamara, he reports no resentment towards him as a new plate holder. He will be driving a Toyota Corolla. "I haven't got my own plate yet, but I've been driving new plates for City Cabs for a few weeks," he points out. "But I know I'm new to the business. I don't know what the real background is, or the real feelings that long-term drivers have. I do know that there is disunity. I can very much understand the feelings of the older drivers. The whole thing was handled very badly."
Anthony Gilmore has had his new licence for a month. He had spent four years cosying for different drivers prior to this. Like the others, he agrees that cosying is very soon going to be a thing of the past. "The only ones left cosying will be the ones still saving up their five grand for the licence," he says.
SO does this mean that cars which were essentially working night and day shifts will now be absent from the road for half the day? "People will be picking their own hours to work. You can't do that as a cosy. Now I have the freedom to come and go as I want. I prefer the night shift because of the traffic during the day," says Gilmore.
He also points a finger at the wider issue of transport and traffic problems in the capital. "The buses bring in thousands of people and then just leave them there. They all come out at the same time. What Molloy did was to look at the smallest end of the transport problem - the taxis - which is the cheapest way for him to try and do something."
Gilmore is driving a Toyota Corolla. Is he making more money now, working for himself? He laughs. "Not yet. But I'd be making even less if I was still cosying."